- Associated Press - Saturday, February 18, 2017

JENNINGS, Mo. (AP) - Her adopted son threatening suicide, a desperate Charlene McCarroll summoned law enforcement the night of April 17, 2015.

St. Louis County police pulled up within minutes.

Three-and-a-half hours later, Thaddeus McCarroll was dead - fatally shot in the front yard of the corner ranch house he shared with his mother in the 9200 block of Riverwood Drive. He was 23.

An autopsy found McCarroll died of 15 rounds fired by two members of the county police department’s tactical operations unit after he refused to drop a 7 1/2-inch knife. He clutched the knife in his left hand when he emerged from the residence shortly before 1 a.m.

His right hand held a miniature Bible.

Police reports, combined with interviews with top law enforcement officials, help explain what occurred during the confrontation.

McCarroll’s standoff with police is a textbook example of the split-second decisions law enforcement officers must make in response to a mental health crisis. Amid heightened scrutiny of police behavior - especially how they treat the severely mentally ill - police say some violent situations leave no alternative to using deadly force.

Questions and criticism nonetheless remain.

“They didn’t have to call SWAT (the tactical unit),” said Matt Granberry, a lifelong friend of McCarroll‘s. “To bring the SWAT team for someone who doesn’t even have a gun? They didn’t have to light him up.”

County Police Chief Jon Belmar said the first responding officers, the tactical division, negotiators and commanders with the department’s Crisis Intervention Team - officers trained to resolve situations associated with the mentally impaired - took every possible measure to prevent a loss of life.

“I’ve looked at this a bunch of different ways, and I don’t know what else we could have done,” Belmar said.

Nearby residents recorded on smartphones the burst of gunfire that shook their neighborhood shortly after 1 a.m. on April 18.

Later that morning, many wondered aloud why two dozen elite officers carrying shields and covered in protective gear didn’t end the standoff with a Taser or by simply tackling the 5-foot, 5-inch, 144-pound McCarroll.

Charlene McCarroll still ponders how her son ended up in a morgue rather than a psychiatric ward.

“I feel guilty because I just wanted to get him some help,” Charlene McCarroll said in a conversation with reporters last year. “They didn’t need to kill him.”

Charlene McCarroll has declined to talk about the case since welcoming reporters into her home in November. She has filed a police brutality complaint with the U.S. Justice Department but said she had received no response.

The tactical unit did attempt a nonlethal end to the standoff by firing a single “KO1” round - a large rubber bullet - that struck McCarroll in the leg after he left his house.

Undeterred by the rubber bullet, McCarroll broke into a “full sprint,” running an estimated 24 feet toward the Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck, or BEARCAT, in front of the home where police were positioned, according to the incident report.

One officer fired 19 times, another fired nine rounds before the rifle jammed. McCarroll was hit 15 times.

In a review of audio recorded on a body camera worn by a member of the tactical unit, the Post-Dispatch (https://bit.ly/2lIsePY ) determined that three seconds elapsed between the nonlethal shot and the bullets that ended McCarroll’s life.

“The subject rushed us so quick there was no other option” than to shoot him, the police report says.

Belmar and Sgt. Jeremy Romo, head of the Crisis Intervention Team, or CIT, say the effort to bring the confrontation to a peaceful conclusion was consistent with training county officers receive to deal with the mentally impaired.

A hybrid of law enforcement and mental health counseling, the eight-hour crisis intervention course is part of the training regimen of every county police officer.

Belmar estimated more than 60 percent of the agency’s 850 officers also have completed an advanced 40-hour course that allows them to wear a CIT identification pin. The advanced training includes classwork with mental health professionals as well as those who broaden officers’ understanding by sharing their experience of living with a mentally ill family member.

“In general, the (county) program has been very successful,” says Laura Usher, senior manager for criminal justice and advocacy with the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Each county precinct is able to dispatch one or more CIT officer to every situation involving a mentally incapacitated individual. Romo said CIT officers respond to 40 to 50 such calls a week.

“A lot of these situations are very complex,” he said.

Crisis Intervention Teams were developed by police in Memphis, Tennessee, in the late 1980s, partly in response to cutbacks in mental health services and reforms that moved a high percentage of mentally ill people out of institutions into mainstream society. In 1987, Memphis police fatally shot a 27-year-old mentally ill man armed with a knife after he charged at officers. The outcry over that killing, said Memphis police Lt. Col. Vincent Beasley, led to the program that has been emulated across the country.

St. Louis County police started putting a Crisis Intervention Team in motion in the late 1990s. The program was formally adopted in 2003, after a deadly standoff similar to McCarroll’s case in which county police killed a 24-year-old disturbed man in Winchester.

A 2015 study by the Treatment Advocacy Center, based in Arlington, Virginia, estimated that “a minimum of 1 in 4 fatal police encounters ends the life of an individual with severe mental illness” and that the risk of someone with an untreated mental illness being killed by police is 16 times greater than for other civilians.

The same study said the number of psychiatric beds in the United States has decreased 90 percent since the 1950s as the population has doubled.

The St. Louis area has about 760 psychiatric beds available at 12 local hospitals, according to the state Department of Mental Health.

Dr. Alok Sengupta, an emergency physician at Mercy Hospital St. Louis in Creve Coeur, said inpatient psychiatric beds are frequently full. “I think it’s a strain on our police force, our EMS co-workers and the emergency department,” he said.

In McCarroll’s case, the first county officers sent to his home on Riverwood Drive gave a neighbor who had mentored McCarroll an opportunity to calm him down. Usher says bringing a third party into a volatile situation, whether a family member, friend or mental health counselor, carries risks.

“It can be very delicate,” she said. “Sometimes it’s safe, sometimes it’s not.”

The county policy is to avoid placing a third party in harm’s way.

“We don’t like doing it because it makes it much more difficult to control the situation” should something go awry, Belmar said.

Gary Cordner, a retired criminal justice professor from Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, supports the inclusion of a mental health professional in life-and-death situations. Cordner co-wrote “The Problem of People with Mental Illness,” a 2006 report for the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing at the University of Albany.

“Some departments have a counselor on duty all the time,” Cordner said. “The police need to recognize that whether they have 40 hours of training or 80 hours of training, they are not clinical psychologists and probably not best suited to work with someone who is out of their mind.”

In Jennings, county police turned to more traditional approaches after the mentor failed to quell the situation.

The tactical unit was summoned and a trained negotiator was dispatched to communicate with McCarroll through a window and by cellphone.

When trying to coax someone out of a house, said Memphis police Lt. Col. Beasley, “Time is on our side. Slowing everything down is important. Sometimes we get to the point where we try to rush the situation. But if you keep allowing people to talk, more times than not, they decide it’s really not worth it.”

The tactical unit, said Belmar, “would have been happy to sit around for as long as it took.”

But as Friday night approached Saturday morning, tension rose.

Thaddeus, what do you need tonight to stop this?” the negotiator asked during a typical exchange captured on audio taken from a police body camera.

McCarroll retorted, “I need you to leave, now!”

County police repeatedly ordered McCarroll out of the house, to drop the knife and walk toward them to talk, promising that they meant no harm.

McCarroll would have none of it.

By then, police had abandoned the window or cellphone in favor of a bullhorn.

“Using a bullhorn to negotiate with someone is not ideal,” said Cordner, the retired professor. For people suffering from delusions, he said “commands are generally counterproductive.”

Belmar tends to agree.

A bullhorn, the chief acknowledged, “can actually ramp up emotions.”

Standing outside his front door, McCarroll threatened to start stabbing if police didn’t clear out. At that point, officers opted not to unleash police dogs over concerns he might stab them or run through the neighborhood armed with a knife. They didn’t use Tasers, assuming the prongs wouldn’t penetrate his jacket.

Acquaintances, neighbors and Charlene McCarroll describe Thaddeus McCarroll as easygoing with an artistic flair - characteristics they saw slowly disappear in the final years of his life.

Granberry, 22, grew up across the street. He described McCarroll as a close friend who used to join in neighborhood football and basketball games. They had earned money by shoveling snow and raking leaves for neighbors. He said McCarroll was a talented artist and had earned a black belt in karate.

“He just always wanted to have fun,” Granberry said. “He was happy.”

Unable to hold a job in his early 20s, McCarroll turned to marijuana and away from the Christian faith that had sustained him through childhood and into adulthood, his mother said. She told police Thaddeus had become increasingly “paranoid and delusional” in early 2015.

According to Charlene McCarroll’s account to police, her son “would often make comments about enemy snipers on their rooftop and that the end of the world was coming” and was “convinced there was some type of governmental conspiracy.”

Though not violent toward relatives, his mother said, he “seemed angry in general.”

McCarroll wanted to enlist in the Army, but a 2013 burglary conviction prevented that.

Belmar and St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch said McCarroll, nearly a year before, had expressed the wish to die at the hands of law enforcement. On July 22, 2014, McCarroll was hit by a car while riding a bicycle and became combative with responding officers, authorities said. As a result, McCarroll was placed on 96-hour psychiatric evaluation at Christian Hospital and then released.

Court records say McCarroll was still on probation at the time of his death and owed $1,900 to the victim in the burglary case.

Equally troubling to family and friends, McCarroll became obsessed with the “Black Hebrew Israelite” religious movement about nine months before his death, police reports say. The FBI has described the movement as extremist and anti-government, expressing hatred for white and Jewish people.

After McCarroll joined the movement, he grew a full beard, tried to recruit friends to watch religious videos and began preaching regularly at the Halls Ferry Circle, Granberry said.

“He just got so brainwashed into it,” Granberry said.

The simmering anger and obsession culminated on April 17, 2015.

“Get the (expletive) out of the house,” Thaddeus McCarroll told his mother, according to police reports. “I am going on a mission!”

Charlene McCarroll fled and called 911.

Later, as word of the police shooting spread, protesters gathered two miles away outside Jennings police headquarters.

Some had participated in the protests that erupted after the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer in nearby Ferguson about eight months earlier. McCarroll was himself photographed by the Post-Dispatch kneeling on West Florissant Avenue, hands in the air, at the height of the unrest in Ferguson.

As the group protesting McCarroll’s death attempted to move from Jennings Station Road to the commercial district on West Florissant Road, shots rang out, quelling a situation that at one point threatened to escalate into Ferguson-like turmoil.

A few days later, Thaddeus McCarroll was quietly laid to rest.

County police withheld investigative reports for more than 18 months, until McCulloch finished his review of the case. In late October, McCulloch’s office declined to file criminal charges, saying the killing was justified.

“I don’t have any hesitation saying that in my view, (police) did everything they could do to end this thing without the result that unfortunately happened,” McCulloch said in an interview. “I think they had no choice but to do that. It’s tragic that it ended that way, but I think they did all they could.”

Life returned to normal on Riverwood Drive, but the memory of the confrontation still stings for some neighbors and leaves Charlene McCarroll wondering if a different response might have kept her son alive.

“I wanted to go back in because I knew how to talk to him and calm him down,” McCarroll’s mother said in November. “They wouldn’t let me back in.”


Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, https://www.stltoday.com

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